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Areas of Concern: Atlantic Division

Drew Maresca continues Basketball Insiders’ “Areas Of Concern” series with a look at the Atlantic Division.

Drew Maresca

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The season is young. As of Thursday morning, there have been 324 games played, with 2136 remaining. Still, a lot can be learned from the first month of the season.

Basketball Insiders kicked off its new series, “Areas of Concern”, earlier this week to highlight issues we should keep an eye on as the season progresses. This installment focuses on the Atlantic Division. Like most divisions, the Atlantic Division has experienced its share of surprises. But things could be more chaotic (e.g., the Southeast or the Northwest). There have been blips in Boston and Philadelphia out of the gate; but beyond those teams, everything is mostly as expected. Let’s examine some specific concerns:

76ers Guards Must Learn to Play Together

The 76ers have a few problems, but their most glaring issue is with their backcourt. Specifically, Markelle Fultz and Ben Simmons and their ability to remain on the court with one another.

Fultz is shooting 30.8 percent on three-pointers so far this season while launching only 1.1 threes per game. And Simmons has totally disengaged with the long ball, choosing to shoot zero three-pointers in 341 minutes. And that makes it challenging to have them on the court at the same time. Defenses play off of them on the perimeter and go under ball screens, which clogs up the paint and makes life more difficult for their lead scorer – Joel Embiid. Even Head Coach Brett Brown conceded that the two must improve their “shooting and spacing” earlier this week to news.com.au.

But more troubling than their shooting is how they affect one another. The 76ers are a minus 6.3 when they share the floor thus far this season. And while Fultz is still seen as a project by most, Ben Simmons is viewed as a star. And Fultz’s presence isn’t exactly helping Simmons.

Looking back to last season, Simmons averaged 22.1 points and 11.6 assists per game per 100 possessions without Fultz in the lineup, and only 15.2 points and 8.9 assists per 100 possessions with him. While both players still have ample time to develop into well-rounded stars, the 76ers organization needs to figure out how the two can coexist more effectively sooner than later. The success of the season might be at stake.

Kawhi Leonard Already Missing Games

The Toronto Raptors haven’t had too much to worry about thus far. Through 12 games, the Raptors have 11 wins. They are the seventh highest scoring team in the league (117.1 points per game). They have the third-best offensive rating, ninth best defensive rating and the fourth best average margin of victory.

But there is one potentially troublesome item: Kawhi Leonard has missed four of the Raptors’ 12 games.

It could be strictly precautionary. But having just returned from a quad injury that cost him most of the 2017-18 season, one might wonder about his overall health. Leonard did recently jam his ankle, but that is unrelated to the injury that led to him missing time last season. And Coach Nick Nurse continues to state that Leonard’s quadriceps are healthy and that he is taking it “game by game.”

While it is likely an overreaction to worry about Leonard’s durability at this point, it is something worth keeping an eye on. Especially considering Leonard is the centerpiece of the Raptors’ offense and the key to them competing for a championship.

Knicks Need to Move Courtney Lee

The New York Knicks are in development mode. And while they seem committed to giving their young core time to develop, there is one noticeable outlier– Courtney Lee.

Courtney Lee has yet to appear in a game this season for the New York Knicks due to a mysterious neck injury. That isn’t terribly unusual – and it even allows them to grant more playing time to the rookies. But Lee and the Knicks are clearly heading in opposite directions. While the Knicks hope to develop the league’s third-youngest roster, Lee is an accomplished 33-year-old veteran hoping to compete in the playoffs.

The Knicks would probably prefer to accommodate Lee and move on from the $12.76 million they owe him next season, but Lee must first prove he can still be a valuable contributor. Both parties would be best served by Lee returning sooner than later and exhibiting his three-and-D skill set.

Celtics’ Production Hurt by Return of Stars

The Celtics started the season a mildly disappointing 6-4. They have played a difficult schedule so far, with losses against the Nuggets, Pacers and Raptors. But regardless of outcomes, the team clearly needs to get its house in order.

The source of their struggles is well-documented – the return of Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. They are players that most any team would love to incorporate, but their respective returns have had residual effects.

Irving is mostly back to his old self. While he is scoring only 19.2 points per game – his lowest average since his rookie campaign– he has come on of late. Additionally, much of his drop off in scoring can be attributed to the abundance of weapons on the Celtics’ roster. But his play isn’t the issue.

Terry Rozier filled in beautifully in Irving’s absence, averaging 16.5 points in the playoffs last season in 36.6 minutes per game. But with Irving back in the lineup, Rozier’s opportunities have diminished dramatically. Rozier will be an unrestricted free agent after the season, and it was never clear if he was interested in remaining in Boston behind Irving. But with Irving back in the lineup, Rozier is averaging only 7.5 points in 22.7 minutes per game – thus, hurting his trade value in the short-term and hurting the possibility that he re-signs in the long-term. And teams around the league have taken notice of his dissatisfaction, which will only hurt his trade value to the club.

Hayward’s conundrum is more complicated. Yes, his production is down. He is playing 25 minutes a game and tallying 10.1 points, 5.8 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game. Comparatively, he averaged 20.3 points per game in 35.5 minutes over his last three seasons in Utah. But he is only 10 games into his return from a horrific injury. This is mildly alarming, but not worth mentioning on its own.

But there’s a butterfly effect of sorts going on in Boston. Allocating 25 minutes per game to Hayward takes playing time away from others. Jayson Tatum’s recent slump is probably a separate issue given that he is seeing more playing time than he received last season, but Jaylen Brown is a whole other story.

Brown, averaged 14.5 points per game last season with a PER of 13.6. And remember, Hayward was injured early on in the first quarter on the first game of the 2017-18 season, so last season was virtually a year without Hayward. This season, Brown is down to 11.4 points and a PER of 8.7 – a significant drop off for a rising star.

And the effect on Marcus Smart is noteworthy, too. Smart’s scoring is down to five points per game (down from 10.2 last season), and his three-point shooting is down to an anemic 18.5 percent (down from 30.1 percent).

The Celtics will likely figure things out because good players led by good coaches typically get good results. But their slow start is definitely cause for concern.

The Nets Are Playing Too Good for their Own Good

Hot take – the Nets aren’t bad. In fact, they’re pretty good. At 5-6, the Nets are in the midst of their best start to a season since the 2012-13 campaign.

The team has a good amount young talent headlined by: Caris LeVert (20.5 points per game), Jarret Allen (11.3 points 7.8 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game) and Spencer Dinwiddie (14.1 points per game on 43.1 percent from three-point range).

There is also added depth in the form of Joe Harris (55.4 percent from three-point range),  D’Angelo Russel ( 15.4 points and 5.1 assists per game) and others.

What’s more, the team plays a great style of basketball for the modern NBA, placing sixth in pace in the league. But it’s still probably not enough to qualify for the playoffs. And even if it is, what’s the goal? To be a middle-tier team that gets eliminated from the playoffs each year?

The Nets have a bright future, but how much better could they be by adding a free agent or two this offseason, as well as a high draft pick? And remember, all the talent the Nets have amassed was facilitated through other teams’ picks that they traded for; the Nets haven’t owned their own pick outright since 2013. So just imagine what their front office could do with a lottery pick.

Many of the concerns listed above will work themselves out. And they will be replaced by new issues – that’s the nature of the beast. But some might linger and throw off a team’s season.

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NBA Daily: Three-Point Champion is Just a Regular Joe

Joe Harris had his league-wide coming out at All-Star weekend when he shocked fans across the globe in upsetting three-point shootout favorite-Steph Curry.

Drew Maresca

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Joe Harris’ fortunes and those of the Brooklyn Nets appear to be traveling on the same trajectory. Harris’ personality and approach embody the softer side of the Brooklyn Nets’ team persona: he is loyal, hardworking and humble. And while Jared Dudley and DeMarre Carroll provide veteran leadership and Spencer Dinwiddie and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson offer personality, Harris provides a grounded approachability.

No one would blame him, though, if he develops a small ego. After all, Harris just received his formal introduction to the world, having won the NBA’s three-point championship last weekend in Charlotte, North Carolina. It’s hard to deny that his star is rising.

And yet, Harris seems unaware that his status is rising.

“To be honest, I am solid in my role. That’s what I’m about,” Harris told Basketball Insiders before the Nets’ January 25 game against the Knicks. “I’m pretty realistic with where I view myself as a player. And I have the self-awareness to realize that I’m not a star player in this league by any means. I mean, I’m good in my role and I’m trying to take that to another level and be as complete as I can in my niche role that I have.”

While Harris’ comments could be misinterpreted as a humble brag, they shouldn’t be. He is simply a hard-working player who perhaps doesn’t quite realize everything he adds to his team. But let’s be clear, Harris’ presence absolutely improves the Nets’ play.

Harris boasts the second-best three-point percentage in the NBA (.471) through the first four months of the season; he trails only Victor Olapido and J.J. Reddick for top three-point percentage of all 48 players who have at least 10 “clutch” attempts from long-range and he’s ranked tenth in points per clutch possession (1.379).

He helps space the floor for teammates D’Angelo Russell and Spencer Dinwiddie, who take advantage of his long-range acumen by attacking an often less congested pathway to the hoop — and drives account for 53.4 percent of the Nets’ points (third in the entire league).

It is no surprise then that the Nets are currently in sixth place in the Eastern Conference.

“At the end of the day we’re just trying to go play good basketball.” Harris said. “The wins are a byproduct of that. It’s about staying locked into this process and how it’s gotten us here regardless of who is on the court.”

Harris’ dedication to the team and its process is becoming more unique each year as players hop from franchise to franchise more frequently than ever before. While Harris only joined the Nets in 2016, he was immediately seen as a key player by the Nets’ leadership, albeit one on a minimum deal – according to Kyle Wagner of the Daily News, Coach Kenny Atkinson saw a lot of Kyler Korver in his game and GM Sean Marks wanted him to study Danny Green.

And while Harris’ 2018-19 stats reflect similar production to the career highs of both of Korver and Green (13.2 points per game with an effective field goal percentage of .622 for Harris versus 14.4 points with an eFG% of .518 for Korver and 11.7 points with an eFG% of .566 for Green), at only 27 years old, he should only continue to improve.

A lot has changed in the two and a half seasons since Harris signed a free agent deal with the Nets, but one thing that hasn’t changed is his character.

“We had various deals that were shorter for more (money),” Harris said. “And some were longer and roughly the same, but this is where I wanted to be and I’m happy it ended up working out.”

Harris ultimately signed a two-year deal for approximately $16 million, which can be viewed as both cashing in, given where he was only two years ago (out of the league), and betting on himself, considering the short-term nature of the contract and his relative youth.

And what’s more, Harris will probably go down as a value signing for the Nets considering his versatility. After all, he is not merely a one-dimensional shooter. In fact, he is actually shooting slightly better than 60 percent on 3.2 attempts per game from the restricted area – which is better than All-Star teammate D’Angelo Russell (53 percent on 2.8 attempts). Further, Harris shoots a fair amount of his three-point attempts above the break, which is to say that he does not rely heavily on the shorter corner threes – which tend to be a more efficient means of scoring (1.16 vs. 1.05 points per possession league-wide from 1998-2018) as they are typically a spot where specialist players lurk awaiting an opening look.

The question is, how much more can we expect to see from Harris in the future? If you ask him, he’d probably undersell you on his ceiling and allude to steady progress that ultimately looks similar to what he’s done recently. But the only thing similar about Harris’ career production is that it has steadily improved – and that’s partially due to his process-oriented approach.

“We talked about it in the midst of the losing streak,” Harris said. “What are you going to change, what are you going to do (when you’re in a slump)? Not that we were going to do the exact same thing, but we felt like we were very process oriented. We felt like we were right there. Our whole thing was about being deliberate and doing it as consistently as possible.”

Harris sees the validity in repeating what works. And he’s figured that out, partially with the help of his teammates. Harris clearly values veteran input and team chemistry.

“You look at our team right now and we have really good veteran presences with Jared and DeMarre and Ed (Davis),” Harris said. “That’s the voice from the leadership standpoint. I’m learning from them just like DLo is. And all the other guys in the locker room are. They’re the guiding presence of what it is to be a professional and they keep everything even keel. They don’t go too low when things are tough, and they don’t let us get too high when things are going well.”

Harris is clearly a little uncomfortable taking credit for his team’s success, and he shies away from the spotlight a bit. He seems to prefer anonymity. But Harris should probably get used to the attention he’s received this season because it will only increase as his profile continues to rise as we enter the 2019 NBA Playoffs.

“He’s not just a shooter,” Atkinson told NBA.com last April. “He’s worked on his drive game, he’s worked on his finishing game. I think he’s worked on his defense. So just a complete player who fits how we want to play. He’s one of our most competitive players. Not a surprise watching, from the first day we had him, how locked in he was, how hungry he was. On top of it, he’s a top, top-ranked human being.”

So expect to see more of Joe Harris this April and beyond, but don’t be surprised by his humility. It’s one aspect about him that won’t change.

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NBA Daily: Danuel House Optimistic About Future

David Yapkowitz speaks to Danuel House about life as a two-way player for the Houston Rockets & what he hopes comes out of his time in the G League with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers.

David Yapkowitz

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Opportunity is everything in the NBA. Last season’s implementation of two-way contracts gave a lot more players potential opportunities in the league that may not have been previously available.

One player who has used two-way contracts to showcase himself and really prove that he belongs in the NBA is Danuel House Jr.

House actually began his career two years ago as an undrafted rookie with the Washington Wizards. However, he suffered a wrist injury only about a month into the 2016-17 season.

He was subsequently cut by the Wizards and used the summer to heal up before joining the Houston Rockets for training camp prior to the start of last season. He ended up being one of the final cuts in camp, and he joined the Rockets’ G League affiliate, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers.

His strong play earned him a two-way contract with the Phoenix Suns after only two months of G League play. This year, he rejoined the Vipers, only to earn another two-way contract with the Rockets. Having had some experience now with a two-way, it’s something that House sees as being beneficial.

“It’s got its good perks and its bad perks. But then the NBA is just trying to open more doors for more guys to be seen and have an opportunity,” House told Basketball Insiders. “I think it’s a good idea, it’s gonna work the kinks out so it can be more beneficial to the players. It’s still new and it’s still trending and working itself through the NBA.”

This season has been a bit of a whirlwind for House. He initially joined the Golden State Warriors for training camp, only to have them cut him before the start of the season. After spending about a month with the Vipers, the Rockets called him up, only to cut him and then eventually re-sign him to a two-way deal.

Due to injuries in the Rockets lineup, House saw meaningful minutes right away, even being placed in Houston’s starting lineup. He had some solid performances down the stretch of last season with the Suns, but this season he really looked the part of a legitimate NBA rotation player.

When a player signs a two-way deal, they are allotted a maximum of 45 days of NBA service, meaning that the rest of the time they must remain in the G League. If a player exceeds the 45-day limit, they must be sent back down to the G League unless they’re able to reach an agreement on a standard contract with the NBA team.

Because of the Rockets’ necessity of House in the rotation, he used up his NBA days last month. He and the Rockets were unable to agree on a contract, so he returned to the G League with the Vipers. While there haven’t been many updates as of late, he’s still hopeful that something can work out with the Rockets.

“Hopefully I can go back to Houston and compete for a title. There’s nothing like learning from James [Harden] and Chris Paul, Gerald Green, Eric Gordon and those guys,” House told Basketball Insiders. “And now with the additions of [Iman] Shumpert and Kenneth Faried, I’m just excited to hopefully get something done so I can be out there and competing with those guys.”

Initially, House wasn’t playing with the Vipers upon returning to the team. But he made his return to the court a few weeks ago on Feb 8. In that game, House shook off some initial rust and ended up having a solid performance including hitting the game-winning free-throws.

In the past, the G League was often times seen as a punishment for NBA players. The league didn’t have that great of a reputation, but over the past few years that image has started to change. The competition has gotten a lot stronger, and according to House, there are plenty of guys who are that close to making it to the NBA.

“The competition here is real. There’s a lot of dudes out here that got a lot of talent that they can showcase. They just want their one opportunity, their one chance that I was so fortunate and blessed with,” House told Basketball Insiders. “I know not to come out here and take it for granted, that’s why I’m playing hard and of course still trying to be a student of the game and learn.”

Recently, during a media availability session, Rockets star and perennial MVP candidate James Harden expressed hope that the Rockets and House could work something out. Harden told reporters that they all know how good House is and what he brings to the team.

In 25 games for the Rockets this season – including 12 starts – House put up nine points per game while shooting 45.8 percent from the field and 39 percent from the three-point line. He’s in the mold of a three-and-D type player, but he also moves well without the ball on cuts to the rim and can attack the basket as well.

“My role was to play defense and make the right read,” House told Basketball Insiders. “Shoot when I’m open, drive, attack the rack, and run the floor. Of course, defend and rebound and make good reads. It was easy.”

As it stands, the Rockets have 12 players on their roster, and a pair of two-way deals for House and Vincent Edwards. House is not eligible to rejoin the Rockets until the G League season concludes. Even then, he won’t be eligible to play in the playoffs as per two-way deal restrictions.

The Rockets will need to add at least two players to get up to the league-mandated 14 players on the roster. House would appear to be a good candidate for one of those spots, but that remains to be seen. But regardless of whether or not it works out in Houston, House is confident that he’s done enough to prove he belongs in the NBA.

“It gave me the utmost confidence, but my hard work, my passion, and my faith in the man upstairs gave me the ability. I asked him to guide me through the journey and he’s been taking care of me,” House told Basketball Insiders. “I’m so grateful that the opportunities and I used my ability to perform and do something I love to take care of my family.”

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PODCAST: Checking In On Clippers & Lakers, East Arms Race, Warriors’ Challengers

Basketball Insiders Deputy Editor Jesse Blancarte and Writer James Blancarte evaluate the L.A. teams after the trade deadline, break down the Eastern Conference contenders, and look for the Warriors’ biggest challengers.

Basketball Insiders

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Basketball Insiders Deputy Editor Jesse Blancarte and Writer James Blancarte evaluate the L.A. teams after the trade deadline, break down the Eastern Conference contenders, and look for the Warriors’ biggest challengers.

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